For an interpreter, keeping up to date with current affairs or special interests, in all of our languages, is an ongoing process. It’s just as important to keep updating our interpreting skills. With this in mind I recently took part in a fascinating talk on retour interpreting, a talk delivered in Paris but one that I viewed via webinar.
The talk was given by Clare Donovan, Director of the ESIT interpreting school in Paris, and organised as part of AIIC’s retour talks. In this blog post I’ll summarise the main points raised and share her suggestions on how to improve as a retour interpreter.
The talk covered:
• attitudes to retour interpreting
• problems encountered by interpreters
• suggested tactics to improve your retour skills
Before I begin here’s some jargon busting for any non-interpreters. Defining retour interpreting would seem like a good place to start but before I can do this we need to understand another bit of interpreter speak: A and B languages.
Put simply we call an interpreter’s native language their A language. If an interpreter has a perfect command of another language then we call this their Blanguage. Using myself as an example, I have English A and French B.
So what is retour? If I interpret for a French speaker who wants to know what an English speaker is saying then I’m interpreting from my A into my B language. If my listener wants to ask the speaker questions then I’ll interpret from my B language into my A language. Working in this way between an A and B language is known as “doing a retour”.
Now let’s look at what was covered in the seminar.
Attitudes to retour interpreting
Clare began by highlighting the two main attitudes to retour interpreting, one positive the other negative. Based on these views some see retour as a good or bad thing.
On the positive side, retour offers an interpreter such as myself a comprehension bonus: I don’t need to focus as much effort on comprehension as I’m listening to someone speaking my A language.
On the down side I then have to interpret this into my non-native language, at which point I might encounter an expression deficit. In other words I could struggle to find the right terms to convey the message I’m listening to. This is the case even if you’re fluent in your B language: according to some our B language lacks the intuition we have in our native language. This intuition is developed over many years as most of our life experiences are undertaken in our A language.
So is working into your B acceptable?
Although some agree or disagree with the use of retour interpreting, clients appear less concerned with how we interpret. In fact they’re more interested in what we say.
Clare reminded us of a survey that asked delegates for their opinion of the interpretation they’d heard during a conference. It also asked what they want overall from an interpreter. Delegates replied saying they wanted the interpretation to make sense, to be clear and to use the right terminology. Whether an interpreter was working in their A or B language, had a perfect accent or not was neither here nor there. Content was key.
But even though we know what clients want, it seems that working in retour can actually prevent us delivering these requirements.
What are the difficulties when working in retour?
Clare listed a series of difficulties faced when working in retour:
It seems that we reach a plateau in our B language that seriously restricts our ability to communicate in retour. When you’ve been learning a B language for many years, there’s a tendency to think you’ve learnt enough to understand what is being said. A decent word bank has been developed that lets us communicate with others, so our brain decides it doesn’t need any more. We avoid putting yourself in situations where we feel out of our depth. We stop looking up words in a dictionary.
Of course as a retour interpreter this is dangerous territory. Saying what you can say isn’t the same as saying what you should
When we interpret we need to constantly analyse what is being said and render this in the other language in a way that makes sense. We need to avoid simply copying the grammatical structure. This places a certain amount of strain on our mental capacity.
It is even more difficult when the retour interpreter is faced with a difficult speech. Perhaps the speaker speeds up or switches topic without warning. Maybe they insert a joke or change register. These are tricky to cope with even in an A language but when faced with this in retour it adds to the pressure and the risk of brain overload.
An essential part of interpreting is to monitor what we’re saying. The problem with retour is that self-monitoring can give us mostly negative feedback. Should I have used the subjunctive there? Was that word masculine or feminine? This constant checking leads us to over correct what we’re saying and this repetition can be annoying for the listener. It also dents our confidence, a vital part of an interpreter’s toolkit.
Breakdown in meaning
The result of one or more of the above can be a total breakdown in meaning. What we’re saying stops making sense.
Anything that distracts us from actually listening to what is being said can lead to inaccuracy and omissions.
Focusing on finding the perfect term in our B language is one such distraction.
But don’t despair!
To counter these difficulties and counteract the lack of language intuition, Clare pointed out some learning strategies and active preparation. Here are some of her suggestions.
How to improve your retour interpreting
• Don’t be too ambitious about your B – it will never be as good as your A. You might have an accent or a narrower vocabulary but the essential thing is to remain accurate and convey the message.
• Work to your comprehension strengths – your B may not be intuitive but you certainly understand everything being said by the speaker. Analyse what they’re saying. Communicate this to your listeners. Keep going.
• Use your B simply and accurately – you don’t need to have a vast word bank of elegant phrases, a perfect accent or a proverb for every occasion. Listen to the meaning and express it as simply as you can. Remember you need to avoid overload and listeners just want it to make sense to, be accurate and to make use of correct terminology.
• Get out of your comfort zone – listen to how native speakers communicate and learn these phrases by heart. Building a toolkit of phrases constantly used during conferences will spare your brain the effort of retrieving them. You’ll be confident in the knowledge these are genuine phrases and you won’t need to self-monitor.
• Identify distractions – this means you’ll be able to avoid them in future. Record yourself and note down anything that could annoy the listener. Common grammatical errors? Repetition? Cut them out to spare your listener.
• Forget imitation – you don’t need to sound like a native. In fact doing so could confuse the listener when they hear you make a simple grammatical mistake. Be confident with your retour status by being confident that what you’re saying makes sense and meets the listeners’ requirements.
• Activate your preparation – make sure these phrases are in your active memory by activating them. Listen to native speakers. Read articles. Note down terms used. Prepare speeches in that languages and insert these terms. Sight translation is another ideal preparation technique.
• Be selective – maybe don’t accept an assignment that relies on the use of a certain style. You might not be able to do this as well as a native speaker. Technical conferences and those that have more predictable content are best. Also think twice about accepting a job if you haven’t much time to prepare.
So what did I learn from this talk?
I took two key messages from this webinar.
Firstly I was reminded that clients are more interested in the accuracy of the content than hearing a perfect accent or wide range of synonyms.
And secondly I learnt to accept that my A and B languages are different and to tailor my practice and preparation accordingly. I’ve been putting this into practice since the talk, based on Clare’s tips, and have seen a definite improvement.
And so taking part in this presentation, even if the webinar option deprived me of an excuse to visit Paris, was a great way of improving my interpreting skills.
To view the webinar yourself click on this link.